Bristol Bears have been undoubtedly the team to beat in the English Premiership this season, and their latest test saw them travel to Franklin’s Gardens to face a Northampton Saints side on the verge of entering the play-off positions, after improved results saw them quickly climb the league this season. However, this would be a tough game for both sides, with both having good moments in it. This tactical analysis will look at how Northampton looked to use the wings to attack and dominate the game, whilst we will also look at Bristol’s tactics in attack and defence throughout the game.
Northampton Saints Bristol Bears
15. G. Furbank 15. H. Purdy
14. M. Proctor 14. N. Adeolokun
13. F. Dingwall 13. P. O’Conor
12. R. Hutchinson 12. A. Leiua
11. T. Freeman 11. S. Naulago
10. J. Grayson 10. T. Eden
9. T. James 9. A. Uren
- A. Waller (c) 1. Y. Thomas
- S. Matavesi 2. B. Byrne
- P. Hill 3. J. Afoa
- A. Coles 4. J. Joyce
- A. Ratuniyarawa 5. C. Vui
- N. Isiekwe 6. S. Luatua (c)
- T. Wood 7. D. Thomas
- T. Harrison 8. N. Hughes
Northampton Saints’ wide attacks
Northampton Saints had control of the game for the majority of the first half, and this was because they looked to play in the areas where Bristol Bears had left spaces free. By attacking the wings in this way, Northampton constantly created opportunities for themselves, which would be crucial against such a good Bristol side.
Here, we see how, even in the early stages of the game, transferring the ball out to the wings was a key focus for the home side. Scrum-half Tom James, in the red circle, was showing particular confidence in moving the ball around the pitch, and this image shows his long pass out to centre Fraser Dingwall, in the yellow circle.
By making passes like this, Northampton were looking to stretch Bristol out, forcing them to leave gaps open between themselves. However, because Bristol didn’t give them the space centrally, Northampton attacked on the undefended wings instead.
Therefore, Northampton looked to constantly run down the wide channels, exposing this space. Here, we see how full-back George Furbank, who was excellent all game, has passed the ball out to winger Tommy Freeman, which has been made possible by Bristol coming inside to stop them running through the middle.
Whilst these advances were gaining Northampton a lot of ground, Bristol were able to get back and tackle them, preventing them ever leading to tries being scored or points being won. However, they still needed to be aware of how much space was being left available, because Northampton were using it to keep them constantly on the back foot.
This image shows how Northampton did eventually manage to turn one of these wide attacks into a try, with fly-half James Grayson, son of former England and Northampton international Paul, playing the long ball over the top to flanker Nick Isiekwe here. The on-loan Saracens back row has space to catch the ball and run forwards with it, as shown by the arrows, and gets the try for his team as a result.
The fact that this followed a long series of attacking phases shows how Northampton had to be patient here, because Bristol were defending well in these areas. However, this patience is what Northampton’s rise up the table this season has been built on, so it was no surprise that they managed to score after pushing hard for so long.
From Bristol’s point of view, they conceded the try because they couldn’t get across the field in time to block off Isiekwe’s run. This is because they had been stretched and moved around the pitch constantly, as Northampton looked to force the space open to score through. Therefore, we can see how Northampton’s tactics allowed them to take control of the game, forcing Bristol to leave spaces like this open.
This image shows another example of Bristol not getting across the pitch in time. Here, Freeman has kicked the ball over the top of the Bristol defenders, with Furbank, in the red circle, running through to meet it. This has come after a set-piece on the other side of the pitch, which explains why Northampton had so much space, but they still had to create the opportunity. The yellow square shows how Freeman has aimed his kick perfectly, with it landing where Bristol couldn’t get to it. Therefore, this again shows their accuracy when distributing the ball around the pitch. They did get a bit lucky with the ball bounce, but Bristol had again left the space open, and Northampton always posed a threat whenever they got into these areas of the pitch.
Bristol Bears’ attack
Despite all that we have said about Bristol Bears struggling to control the game, they did have their own opportunities, and came back to win the game. The image below shows one example of them running forward with the ball.
It is winger Niyi Adeolokun here who has found the space to run through, after making an interception in the Northampton Saints line. However, he has been quickly closed down here by Northampton centre Rory Hutchinson, who has angled his run to force the Bristol winger out of play. This means Adeolokun is forced to kick the ball forwards, as the white arrow shows, but there are no Bristol players who have got forward quickly enough to support him and get on the ball. Therefore, Northampton can reclaim the ball and end the threat.
This image shows the wider picture of the first half, from Bristol’s point of view. They didn’t get many opportunities, but, when they did, Northampton were able to get back and close them down.
It took them just under 25 minutes to get into the game, with their first meaningful attack leading to the opening try. With Northampton making it hard for them to find gaps, Bristol had to become more creative in the way they attacked. Here, the ball is with Alapati Leiua, playing at centre in this game, and he passes the ball to full-back Henry Purdy, in the yellow circle here. However, because the pass was back inside the pitch, it meant that Northampton’s defenders, who had run across the pitch to follow the ball, allowed the gap to be created, allowing the former Gloucester player to run through between lock Alex Coles and Hutchinson and score.
This creativity continued in the second half. Here, Sam Bedlow, who came on at fly-half in this game, has found a gap in Northampton’s defence. From there, he looks to play a pass out to the wing, where Fiji winger Siva Naulago is waiting. However, even though the pass doesn’t come off, this shows how Bristol were trying different approaches to break Northampton down. Up to this point, it hadn’t quite been clicking for them though, which was the main reason they were struggling to convert chances.
Once Bristol had scored a third try, with substitute Luke Morahan going over, they looked more confident, and started to find even more opportunities to score. Northampton at this stage seemed to have lost their confidence, and that led to a mistake here. Another substitute, Fitz Harding, has picked the ball up and passes to scrum-half Andy Uren, who then runs through under little pressure to score under the posts. This was the second try in two minutes for Bristol, following Morahan’s, which shows how Bristol had turned the game and taken control in its closing stages.
This try only came about because Harding timed his pass well, waiting until the defender had committed before offloading to Uren, which ensured that the scrum-half had open space to run into. It also shows why Bristol are at the top of the Premiership, looking unbeatable at the moment, because, even though they mostly looked second-best in this game, they found the quality when they needed it, and winning when not playing at your best is a sign of champions.
Bristol Bears’ defence
With them struggling to create good attacking opportunities, coupled with Northampton Saints’ well-planned attacking tactics, Bristol Bears had to be strong in defence.
Here, we see how Northampton flanker Tom Wood is being tackled by Alapati Leiua. Wood has only just received the ball at this point, showing the speed and urgency that Bristol were playing with at the back. By getting up to Wood this quickly, Leiuna has prevented him making a decision on where to move the ball to next, making it harder for Northampton to create any space to attack through. The fact that Bristol won a penalty shortly after this shows how their strong defending in these phases was crucial to them staying in the game, because we have already seen how Northampton were controlling most of the game through their attacks.
Bristol were equally as strong when defending in open spaces. Here, James Grayson has passed across the pitch towards George Furbank, in the yellow circle. However, as the ball is in transit, Bristol full-back Henry Purdy has moved up the pitch to tackle his opposite number, as soon as he has the ball. His tackle ends Northampton’s attack, because they are now not able to carry on moving the ball across the pitch, where the space would have been, and this is why Purdy had to get there and why his anticipation here is crucial.
Therefore, we have seen in these two images how Bristol defended well against Northampton, and, given how Bristol eventually turned the game and scored two late tries, getting up to the home side’s attackers early was clearly a big factor in their eventual victory.
We have seen how Bristol defended well, but we have also mentioned in this analysis how they were not quite themselves for the majority of the game. This image shows one occasion when they gave Northampton space to attack through centrally, with Furbank instrumental in gaining ground in these situations, getting forward as often as possible. Bristol needed to watch these gaps, because, with Northampton finding space on the wings, Bristol couldn’t afford to let them get through the middle as well. These didn’t appear too many times, but the fact that they appeared at all will give Director of Rugby Pat Lam something to look at for future games.
In conclusion, Northampton Saints were the better side for most of the game, and scored some good tries, coming from excellent tactics that saw them attack where Bristol Bears were weaker. Bristol, meanwhile, were not at their best, and DoR Pat Lam admitted his team looked a little off the pace. However, what will have pleased him and them is the way they came back to win the game, scoring at key times, because winning when not playing well is important, and is why they are at the top of the English Premiership and the team to beat at the moment.